Sports have all had to start somewhere. Baseball started with just makeshift equipment. There was no real league and no real equipment being manufactured for the sport. Now it is a full-fledged sport with rules, professional players, and equipment made on a mass production level. This type of timeline is not uncommon when sports start to evolve. This is the timeline that downhill mountain biking has followed. The timeline for downhill mountain bikes has gone through many stages at a decently fast pace. The bikes have undergone an evolution that has changed the way biking is seen. The bike has expanded from an object that provides transportation to one that provides a living for some.
The first bikes that were invented were around 100 pounds. They were made to transport people from one destination to another. There was no consideration of speed or if the bicycles were going to go off the created tracks. According to Frederick Savre in his article “From Marin County’s Seventies Clunker to the Durango World Championship 1990: A History of Mountain Biking in the USA”, the reason why people rode bicycles “off-road” is “due to the absence of paved roads.” In other words, the sport of mountain biking was created out of necessity, not for the fun of it. They needed to go off-road. To make going off-road as safe – and let’s face it, as fun – as they could, the individuals who needed to go off-road started to make adjustments to their bikes.
As explained by Dr. Sarah McCullough in her final dissertation, “Mechanical Intuitions: The Origins and Growth of Mountain Biking,” clunkers, the name for these off-road bikes before the term downhill mountain bikes, “were made from Schwinn cruiser bicycles circa 1930-1960, though the older frames were much preferred since they featured more durable, stronger steel.” These clunkers were made from spare parts from backyards, the frames that Dr. McCullough talks about, and materials that are able to fit the bike. These bikes were called clunkers. Dr. McCullough says, “These early machines deserved the ontomontapoenic reference. Their heavy frames and components ‘clunked’ along the trail with much rattling and jostling.” These bikes were the future of the sport of downhill mountain biking.
Today’s bikes are much different. The first bike made purposefully for downhill mountain biking was made by Joe Breeze. Dr. McCullough recounts the entire story of how the bike came into being. She also states that “the ability of the bicycle to become more than just a bike, to become a responsive part of the body, is what made it worth reproducing.” In other words, having a bike that worked with you, helped you gain faster speed, and could handle the terrain was something that others were interested in having. Today’s bikes model after this first mountain bike and that first mountain bike was modeled after the clunkers. The evolution continues.
Today, the sport of downhill mountain biking has been included in the Olympic Games. Within a mere decade, the sport had grown popular enough to have two world championships and to be included in the Olympics. To be included in the sport, Frederick Savre’s article “An Odyssey Fulfilled: The Entry of Mountain Biking into the Olympic Games,” states that “each sport that was put forward for inclusion in the Olympic programme had to fulfil the conditions of being practised on 4 continents and in 75 countries for men’s events, and 3 continents and 40 countries for women’s.” These were the conditions that needed to be met for the 1990 Olympic Games. Savre goes on to tell more about the event. He mentions that “on the 30th of July 1996, 40,000 people filled the mountain biking venue to capacity to watch the men’s and women’s events.” The debut of this sport in the Olympic Games and they are able to fill the venue to capacity. This is significant because the sport that was replaced with mountain biking was a sport where all of the competitors were male. Under the guidelines mentioned in the newly approved Title IX Act, all sports being introduced into the Olympics must have a men and women’s competition. That meant that mountain biking had male and female competitors. Although mountain biking ranked next to last in terms of total ticket sales, according to Savre, “in the eyes of the IOC (International Olympic Committee), it had reached its objective with the newly revamped cycling events and inclusion of mountain biking, regarded as a young and universal sport that was practised by both sexes.” (Parenthesis added)
The new mountain bike is viewed in a different light than the first one. According to gtbicycles.com, their 2014 Force Carbon Pro is made when you “Combine 150mm of premium suspension travel on both the front and the rear and aggressive geometry you have a bike that is very capable on a super wide range of trails.” Not only are these bikes not 100 pounds each, they are also supporting full suspension on the front and rear part of the bike. This is a long way from grabbing an old bike, throwing some random parts on and hoping that it will make it down to the bottom of the mountain in one piece. These are not the same bikes that needed the brakes repacked every time a race or a fun ride was completed.
Mountain biking is still a relatively new sport. It has only been around for about 34 years. In the short time since its inception, more than half of the bike sales have been mountain bikes. Indeed, I recently became one of those individuals who bought a mountain bike. I went my local bike shop thinking that it was going to be a one day, few hour trip, only to find out that it was a multi-day, several long hour decision. I went into that bike shop thinking that I could just hop on any bike and take off down very steep, treacherous mountains and be perfectly fine.
If you are like me and you are buying your first mountain bike but you don’t have someone who knows what they are doing, find someone! You don’t realize how important brakes, handlebars, seats, suspension, and the overall frame and build of the bike are. All of these different parts of the bike are intricate and can be personalize for each individual rider. Take the time to make the bike yours. Take the time to learn more about what you are putting your life into.
The evolution of the bike has not only been to increase the fun and the speed of the experience, but also make the experience safer for those who are involved. The first use for a bicycle was transportation. Now the use is a means of living for those who are professional downhill mountain racers. Those who practice on and off the trails built into the side of a mountain. I have only been on the bike for a while and already I’ve been thrown head first from it, like an angry bull bucking you off.
I am excited to see some of the general stereotypes that have been introduced into this sport are being challenged and mostly disproven. Mostly I am excited that there are many women who are faster and better than men are at this sport. It is important to realize these stereotypes are not the correct way to think about the different genders in this sport because when it comes to riding, no matter what gender, race, age, or class you are, if you aren’t thinking fast enough and aren’t able to react fast enough to those thoughts, then you will most likely end up with your face or bottom on the ground. Mountain biking is a great example of a sport that doesn’t care what gender you are. It is a sport where the best of the best will be the first ones down the mountain. Mountain bikes have really come a long way and I can’t wait to see where it heads next.